Saints I have known

On All Saints Day, we celebrate the saints we have known – those followers of Jesus, living and dead, who have shown us by their example how to live a Christian life.

As I thought about what message I would bring to you today, I kept being nudged – no, not simply nudged but pushed, even compelled – to talk about some of the saints I have known.

These are people who have richly influenced my walk with Christ. I won’t tell you about all of them because I’m sure that some who are still alive would be deeply embarrassed if I named them in public. There are so many more I could name, but I have only so much time, and you have only so much patience.

Let’s start the name-dropping with a woman named Cam. Actually, her name was Mrs. Camden, but Cam was about all my younger brother could pronounce at the time she was our babysitter. Cam taught in the children’s Sunday School of her church. Knowing that my family did not go to church, she brought us leftover Sunday School materials every week.

I loved the handouts that told Bible stories in comic book format. In those comics, the Bible sprang to life for me. It’s one thing to hear Bible stories. It’s another to experience them in vivid color, comic book style. I sure wish I had kept some of them.

Also dear to me was my cousin Patti, who lived nearby. We would do summer ministry among neighborhood kids. I think she was the most enthusiastic Christ follower I’ve ever known. I think she would have made a great pastor, but her faith tradition doe not allow women to act in that role, so she became a great pastor’s wife. They continue their ministry even in retirement.

In the fundamentalist Baptist that church Patti and I attended teenagers, the youth group leader was Dave. For our junior year college exploration trip, Dave packed three of us into his VW Beetle and drove us to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. The trip itself was memorable because Dave drove according to different rules of the road than we were used to, especially on narrow mountain roads.

I was interested in Bob Jones because it had a film program, and I wanted to make movies. I quickly discovered that the film program was not what it was cracked up to be, and I could not live under the restrictions of this ultra-fundamentalist and ultra-racist “fortress of the faith,” as it called itself. It’s a fortress of something, all right.

Dave was sympathetic to my concerns. It was one of those things that made him a good youth leader, though I don’t think it endeared him to his bosses.

I wound up at the University of Illinois, which did not have a film program but did offer a major in radio and TV. I had moved away from church by now, but I got connected to InverVarsity Christian Fellowship. It offered a special theology class taught by John Warwick Montgomery of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. He was a giant in conservative theology circles, and his teaching made a liberal out of me.

A few years later, I met this woman named Linda. She was a United Methodist, so it was inevitable that we would marry in a United Methodist Church. On our wedding day we discovered that the pastor, Bill Laughlin, had gone to high school with my mother, though they hadn’t seen each other in years.

A few years later, we moved to Traverse City, Michigan, where we met Bob and Ellen Brubaker. Bob was pastor of Central United Methodist in Traverse City. Ellen was pastor of the smaller Old Mission United Methodist Church on Old Mission Peninsula. Once a month they exchanged pulpits. It was no surprise to us that a few years later she was one of two women who became the first female district superintendents in Michigan history.

Our first child and five northern Michigan winters drove us closer to home. In Kansas City we became part of another Central United Methodist Church. The pastor was Elbert Cole. He was one of the most visionary and energetic church leaders I’ve ever encountered. We were saddened when his wife Virginia faded away before our eyes because of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Central had what it called a “bishop in residence.” That was retired Bishop Eugene Frank. I especially valued his support later, when I moved toward ordained ministry. At Central we also met a young associate pastor fresh out of seminary – Adam Hamilton. It was his first appointment before he founded Church of the Resurrection 30 years ago.

I won’t mention names here, but one of the greatest spiritual influences on us during this time was the Mariners Sunday School class. It was such a tight-knit group that though most of us are far apart physically, a half dozen of us still keep in touch.

A move to Kansas eventually meant a change of churches, and in Roeland Park we found a jewel in our own back yard. Wally Proctor was pastor of the Roeland Park church then. When he encouraged me to go into ministry, he became my mentor and later my boss when I joined the church staff as student intern.

Among the congregation,Larry Krueger was especially welcoming and accepting. Several years ago I had the privilege of presiding at the wedding of daughter, who had been in my youth group years before. Larry died shortly afterward from pancreatic cancer. That dread disease also claimed the life of another friend from Roeland Park, Denise Johnson.

Another saint from that church was Jane Lynch. She fought multiple sclerosis valiantly for several years until it finally wore her out. Jane’s spirit may be summed up in a statement of her philosophy on raising two teenage boys. She said, “I don’t want to be the meanest mom in the world. But I want to be a contender.”

Then there’s Jean Austin. She was the church’s “Amen corner.” At the end of the choir anthem or some other event, she would shout “Amen!” Then one day she announced that she was going to have to devote all her time to her ailing mother, so someone needed to replace her.

I had recently become a Lay Speaker, so when I first spoke in church, I said I would take Jean’s place. I was very shy and insecure in those days, but when the time came, I managed to croak my first “Amen!” and nobody thought it was weird, and I knew I’d found my calling.

Saint Paul School of Theology is thick with saints, so I’ll mention only a few.

First there’s Young Ho Chun. I was able to take only one class from him, but it was a foundational event. He was my academic adviser, and when I had to choose where to go for what’s called a contextual immersion experience, he told me I should spend a week at the Trappist monastery in Ava, Missouri.

He said it was just the kind of spiritual experience that I needed, and he was right. That week may be the most formational event of my life. Part of the reason for that was our instructor, Paul Jones. He was a United Methodist minister then. Now he’s a Catholic priest. He is simply one of the deepest spiritual advisors I’ve ever had.

Let me also mention three of my favorite seminary teachers: Tex Sample, Hal Knight and Warren Carter. Oh my, what these men taught me and what they conveyed to me simply by being who they are! Linda had Hal as a teacher, too, and we are part of a reading group he leads – lately by Zoom.

My first appointment after seminary was a two-point charge, Lansing and Fairmount. Lansing was a church in turmoil when I arrived, and we had some tense times over the years. Myrtle Parsons was part of the old guard defending the status quo. I remember the morning when she waved a skinny, arthritic finger in my face and said, “I won’t let you drive me out of my church!”

But we became friends and allies, and when she was close to death, she invited me back to her farmhouse to say goodbye, and she asked me to do her memorial service.

Let me tell you about Ernest and Nancy Jones. They lived down the street from us, and every Tuesday evening five or six families from the neighborhood would gather at their house for a potluck. It was our way of supporting Nancy in her role of caretaker for Ernie, who had Alzheimer’s.

He could still run through the preflight checklist of a B25 bomber, but most days he couldn’t remember his name. Nancy had to tell him that every morning when she went through a series of flashcards with him. When Ernest died, Nancy took up volunteering in earnest. (Pun intended.) She helps run a food pantry in Leavenworth and has been named volunteer of the year several times.

Ray and Gail Miller were stalwarts of that church. At about the same time, Gail had tests for lymphoma and I had colon surgery, and doctors were sure that the mass they removed was cancerous. I have always said that if these things were decided on merit, she would have gotten a pass here because she was a far better Christian than I was. But my tests came back negative, and hers were positive. After extensive treatment, she went into remission, for several years. But it came back, and five years ago she died. Some things are just not right in this world.

I might name a few live saints in Paola, where I served next, but I’ll mention only two who have passed on. One is Dick Gilman, a KU grad who still holds passing and pitching records from his days playing football and baseball. Dick was Lay Leader at Paola for many years. He was as quiet and unassuming and generous a man as I’ve ever met.

Another Paola saint was Herb Fickel. He was proud to say that he was a Marine, but he never said much about the fight for Iwo Jima. A one-time furniture salesman, Herb never met a person whose ear he couldn’t talk off, and he told a lot of people about his love for Jesus.

Next comes Central church in Lawrence, the third Central church in my life. Most of the saints there are still alive, so I’ll not put them on the spot by naming them. But I must mention Dottie Knetsch, wife of Piet Knetsch, my copastor at Central. She was a United Methodist pastor forced into retirement by the disease that eventually killed her.

The only saint I’ll mention from here is Ted Jones. Ted was well known for the cards she made for people on special occasions. It was her gentle way of reminding them that they mattered to her and to God.

Until she died nearly three years ago, my mother sent store-bought cards to relatives and friends. That’s how one of my distant cousins learned of her death. He missed getting a card on his birthday, and he couldn’t reach her by phone, so he found my number on the internet and called me.

I haven’t gone into a lot of detail here, and I’ve skipped a lot of people, but I hope you get the idea I’m trying to convey. You are surrounded by saints. They are everywhere. They are woven into the fabric of your life, and they have helped shape your life. They had a role in making you who you are today.

Please pause to remember them today. If you sit down and make a list, as I did, you’ll be amazed at some of the names you come up with, and the more you think about it, the more names you’ll recall.

We are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses. It’s not the kind of cloud that obscures your vision. No, it’s the kind of cloud that makes everything clear. It’s the kind of cloud that makes the love of God working in your life so crystal clear.

This message was delivered November 1, 2020, All Saints Day, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Hebrews 12:1-2 and 1 Peter 1:3-5.      

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